Do you pay attention the opinion polls? The ones that tell us of the ebb and flow of popularity of our political leaders? If you do you may frequently find yourself scratching your head. Wondering why one politician can be a hero on a Monday and a villain by Tuesday. While another leaps from obscurity to zeitgeist in the same timeframe. With no clear logic behind either.
Well here in Wales we have a folly which is a monument to exactly that phenomenon.
Paxton’s Tower stands isolated on Bryn-Y-Bigwrn between Llandeilo and Carmarthen. If you have ever travelled east out of Carmarthen on the A48 and glanced up to your left, you cannot help but notice it. It is vast. A gothic tower elevated high above the landscape. It is a monument to how fickle the world of politics is.
It was the brain child of a man called William Paxton. He was a very ambitious man. Born in Edinburgh he joined the Navy and travelled to India. He saw the opportunity this land could offer a man like him and made his fortune as a banker. He returned home intent on elevating himself to be one of the cream of society. So, he bought a country estate (Middleton Hall near Carmarthen) entered politics and got himself elected as Mayor of Carmarthen.
This achievement may have overshadowed a stark truth. He was at the time universally hated.
The upper classes, to which he craved acceptance looked down their nose at him due to his vulgar ‘new money’ status. The ordinary people of Carmarthenshire were starving at the time. There had been a run of failed harvests and they were suffering from the effects of grinding rural poverty. They just hated how he splashed his cash around.
In 1802 he ran for parliament. He promised the people of Carmarthen that he would build a new bridge over the Tywi. Something that was badly needed if the town were to prosper in the modern world. He also spent a fortune on bribing voters.
But he still lost.
So, he decided to wallow in his unpopularity and stick two fingers up to them all. He spent the £15,000 the new bridge would have cost on building this vast 500-foot-high tower. He used it for entertaining the handful of people who liked him. There was a dining room at the top which had spectacular views.
He also decided to dedicate it to the victories of Nelson. He had once met and entertained the the Admiral in his capacity as Mayor and had been very impressed by him.
Not long after the building was finished, complete with stained glass windows depicting some of Nelson’s naval victories, Nelson died. At his funeral in 1805 he was elevated to the status of national hero. So this shrine shifted from being a source of ridicule and contempt to being a local landmark and national monument to the great hero overnight.
So much so that when Paxton stood for election a second time in 1806, he won. And he didn’t even promise a bridge. That’s politics!
These days the tower is Grade II listed and is managed by The National Trust.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy the one I wrote about Colonel Philip Jones and how he navigated his way the through the political turmoil of both the English Civil War and the Restoration. Despite being very closely associated with the Cromwells.